WASHINGTON — Sen. John Warner, R-Va., urged President Bush Thursday to announce in mid-September that he is beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Warner, perhaps the most influential Republican senator on national security issues, said that withdrawing a small number of troops — perhaps as few as 5,000 — would send a "sharp, clear message" to Iraq, America and the world that the U.S. commitment in Iraq isn't open-ended.
Warner's statement reflects Republican discontent with Bush's Iraq policy. However, the Virginia Republican made clear that he won't support efforts by congressional Democrats to impose a withdrawal timetable on Bush. Asked if he'd vote for Congress to order a withdrawal if Bush refuses, Warner said that it's Bush's responsibility under the Constitution, not Congress'.
Democrats had been hoping that Warner would help lead Republicans to break decisively with Bush. His stand Thursday, however, helps to ensure that Bush will prevail over Democrats on the issue, because without substantial Republican support, they lack the votes to override Bush's veto.
"I don't for a minute advocate any rapid pullout or any other type of action of that nature," Warner said. While he's criticized Bush's troop "surge" in the past, he's also voted against withdrawal timelines.
Warner visited Iraq last week. He voiced grave disappointment Thursday with the U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
"I really firmly believe the Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, has let our troops down," he said, although he stopped short of calling for Maliki to resign.
Maliki's failure to make significant progress toward forging political reconciliation led Warner to agree with a new National Intelligence Estimate issued Thursday, which found that the Iraqi government's future is precarious over the next six to 12 months. Yet he said he retains "faint hope" that Maliki may make some political progress soon.
The former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said that "we simply cannot as a nation stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody's attention."
He quoted Bush telling Maliki on Jan. 10 that America's commitment "is not open-ended." He quoted Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who recently warned Maliki that America's support for his government is "not a blank check."
"The time has come to put some meaningful teeth in those comments," Warner said, "to back 'em up with decisive action."
If Bush would announce the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal on Sept. 15, Warner said, "that would get everybody's attention." Get the initial troops "home to their families no later than Christmas," Warner advised, carefully evaluate how that initial drawdown went, and then decide whether more should be withdrawn.
"I do not consider this recommendation to the president to be tantamount to any 'pulling the rug out from the troops,'" Warner said, quoting Bush's speech Wednesday warning Congress not to risk that.
The White House was noncommittal in reaction to Warner. Gordon Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that while Bush appreciates Warner's comments, he wants to hear from Gen. David Petraeus, Crocker and others in September before deciding his next move on Iraq.
Warner also challenged Bush's comparison Wednesday of Iraq to the Vietnam War. In his speech to the Veterans of Foreign War convention, the president said that premature withdrawal from Iraq could lead to widespread humanitarian disasters as happened in Southeast Asia after U.S. troops left Vietnam.
Warner, who was secretary of the Navy during the Vietnam War and visited there many times, rejected Bush's comparison.
"I feel that there are no parallels, really," he said. "It's a different type of situation. ...(Vietnam) did not pose a threat to the internal security of the United States as these conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq do. But the president was correct to observe the really sad way in which we finally departed from that country. ...We do not want a repeat of that disorderly withdrawal."